FEATURE — Spring 2007

Marsha Williams, M.A. ’82 (psychology), is senior vice president of planning and research at Nickelodeon Networks. SpongeBob SquarePants is the television division’s Nicktoons’ most popular original programming to date. Rugrats (represented by Angela Pickles, at top) was another smash hit.

Captivating Kids

As senior vice president of research and planning at Nickelodeon Networks, alumna Marsha Williams knows her youthful audience and supports content based
on extensive studies.

By Betsy Rogers

Marsha Williams is just naturally curious—about the world, about people, about kids, about issues. She has, she says, a passion for research. And she loves children. So she holds what just could be the perfect job, as senior vice president of research and planning for Nickelodeon and MTV Network’s Kids and Family Group, the children- and youth-focused media giant and No. 1 entertainment brand for kids.

The broad label for Williams’ responsibilities in this post is “Consumer Insights.” It’s a hefty portfolio that includes all Nickelodeon’s research except the Nielsen ratings. “I’m responsible for the research that supports all our brands and all our businesses, and helps us understand our consumers,” she explains.

Those businesses go far beyond the flagship TV channel. In addition, there are Nick Jr., targeted to toddlers and preschoolers; Nick at Nite, the “classic TV network”; Noggin, Nickelodeon’s digital preschool brand; Nicktoons Network; Nick Movies—and that’s just the television group. Nickelodeon publishes magazines, operates a vast online enterprise, maintains a consumer products business, and has a growing recreational business, producing live shows in venues around the country and across the globe. Nickelodeon is the most-widely distributed kids’ network in the world available in 156 territories worldwide via 35 channels across Africa, Asia and the Pacific Rim, CIS/Baltic Republics, Europe, Latin America, and the United States.

Where others might stagger under the weight, Williams, M.A. ’82, thrives. “I love that I work for a company where research is so integral to what we do,” says this self-proclaimed “research geek.” “I’m often challenged by the work itself, not just the volume, and I’m learning a lot.”

In the process, she is sharing what she learns with the world and has established Nickelodeon as a leader in generating evidence-based information about children and teens. In 2005, for instance, Nickelodeon hosted “The New Normal,” a research symposium about kids, aged 6 to 14, and their parents. Based on Nickelodeon-commissioned studies, as well as research initiatives from the Kaiser Family Foundation and others, “The New Normal” presented intriguing new information about diversity, technology, and contemporary parenting.

The research revealed, for example, the extent to which technology is dominating children’s lives. Households with kids have access to an average of more than 100 television channels, up from 33 during the 1990s. Nearly 70 percent of kids have TVs in their bedrooms. Television usage has grown to an average of 23 hours, 3 minutes per week; broadband usage stands at nearly 17 hours per week; and kids send an average of 14.4 text messages every day. The ready availability of technology has more kids multitasking. “The New Normal” reported that in a composite day, kids aged 8–14 pack 8 hours and 26 minutes worth of media use into about 6 hours and 13 minutes; multiple-media use occupies about 26 percent of their media time.

Williams notes that Nickelodeon conducts regular, systematic content analyses to make sure that its programming fairly reflects the demographics it serves.

The research also showed that youngsters today see different racial groups exercising dominant influence in different spheres of daily life. Substantial numbers of kids believe African-Americans are the “thought leaders” in music, fashion, and sports, while whites lead the way with video games, computers, and the Internet. It revealed, Williams says, “the extent to which diversity reverberates in kids’ lives, the influence of ethnic groups on pop culture.”

That reverberation is primarily a result of the media, Williams says. Nickelodeon’s “U.S. Multicultural Kids Study 2005,” one of the research initiatives incorporated into “The New Normal,” revealed that though children are growing up in an increasingly diverse society, white children especially see this diversity much more in the media than they do in their neighborhoods and classrooms. The study showed that about 70 percent of white kids live in predominantly white neighborhoods and attend predominantly white schools.

“So even though the population is more diverse,” Williams observes, “more than half of American kids live in neighborhoods and go to schools that are segregated.”

In this context, where the media are the players most effectively representing diversity, the implications are clear. “Whether the media want to accept the responsibility or not,” Williams says, “all media are educational. I applaud our executives for their willingness to accept that responsibility.” She notes that Nickelodeon conducts regular, systematic content analyses to make sure that its programming, both on television and online, fairly reflects the demographics it serves.

On another front, Nickelodeon has plunged into the childhood obesity issue with the study “Kids, Food, and Eating Behaviors.” Williams says that intensive dialogue with advocates and government agencies revealed a gap in research about food in the context of kids’ and families’ daily lives. Among many findings, the study showed that parents have ceded control of breakfast and lunch to children and that families often do not eat the same foods even when they do sit down for dinner together. Critically, it found that while childhood obesity is a serious concern, “it pales by comparison to adult obesity,” Williams says, revealing parents who are simply unwilling to give up unhealthy eating habits.

"My best hope for my work is that the content we make is really enhancing the lives of kids … and offering safe and meaningful alternatives. …”

Nickelodeon has taken an imaginative tack in addressing this issue. It has launched a major initiative called “Let’s Just Play” to encourage kids and parents to become more active. It funds grants—$2 million to date—to community groups to promote play and fitness. The company also has partnered with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation—the American Heart Association and the William J. Clinton Foundation—on a mini-series addressing real kids’ challenges and triumphs on the path to health and wellness: The Let’s Just Play Go Healthy Challenge. For the past three years, Nickelodeon has held a Worldwide Day of Play, encouraging outside activity. Each year, the channel “goes dark” for three hours, airing only a Worldwide Day of Play logo. When programming resumes later in the day, it emphasizes health and fitness.

This event, a kind of international field day, takes place in public parks and schoolyards around the world. On September 30 last year, Nickelodeon partnered with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, with Boys and Girls Clubs, local American Heart Association divisions, schools, and others to promote obstacle courses, sack races, games, and outdoor fun at nearly 900 sites across the United States and in Portugal, Guam, Turkey, Italy, South Korea, Japan, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

The effort is gratifying for Williams. “My best hope for my work is that the content we make is really enhancing the lives of kids, creating an enjoyable experience, and offering safe and meaningful alternatives for them. I love what I do.”

Spare time is not abundant in her life, but she finds enough to enjoy friends, godchildren, and nieces. And she travels to Africa at least once a year, into the bush. “I have a passion for photography,” she admits. She has traveled frequently to Tanzania, Kenya, and South Africa and has also visited Botswana, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

In college and graduate school, Williams studied psychology, and worked in assessment and psychological testing before joining the Children’s Television Workshop in 1991. She moved to Nickelodeon in 1996 and was named to her current position in 2005.

She readily acknowledges the volume of her responsibilities and the challenges they pose. “The kids’ media landscape is a lot more crowded now,” she points out. But, she adds, “The better the other brands do, the better we have to be. I like that.”

Betsy Rogers is a free-lance writer based in Belleville, Illinois.